Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The Invention of Net Neutrality

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, September 21 2009

Right at this very moment, Federal Communications chair Julius Genachowski is appearing at Brookings to announce that the Obama-era FCC will be taking a more aggressive approach to defending net neutrality principles. "The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads," reads Genachowski's scripted remarks. The Obama-era agency's first substantive move on neutrality will be to codify former chair Michael Powell's "Four Freedoms" as commission rules, as well as to add a two-part Genachowski addendum: Internet service providers will be prevented from discriminating against particular content or applications other than for the purpose of reasonable network management, and they must be fully transparent about whatever it is they do do that falls under the "network management" loophole. And what's a revolution in telecom policy without a micro-site to commemorate the event? Nothing, that's what. And so the FCC is also announcing today the launch of OpenInternet.gov as a hub for push for a free and open Internet.

What's amazing, on this day, is to take a look back at what a coup the mainstreaming of "net neutrality" as a political virtue truly is for the online left -- the netroots, if you will. Whatever the constructive equivalent of a "blog scalp" is, this is it. Network neutrality has gone from an esoteric intra-industry battle to the cornerstone of what progressive technology policy looks like. The concept has long roots in the "common carrier" idea that the best, most useful, and most sustainable communications networks are one where the network should be open to having things attached to it, like modems. And the rise of "net neutrality" as a particular idea, though, goes back to Tim Wu's 2003 paper in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law. But the concept didn't really take root until 2006, when, for supporters, there was a happy confluence of events. The Brand X case created a rallying point, and as the '08 presidential race heated up, there was a desire amongst Democratic candidates to win the surging netroots' favor (or at least not tick them off too badly). Embrace of net neutrality was a way to prove technologist bona fides at the time where Washington was just beginning to cotton to the Internet. Free Press' Save the Internet coalition coalesced the momentum around neutrality -- including a sprinkling of conservative voices, and the expectation became that Democratic candidates would come out with a pro-neutrality declaration, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner and others duly did.

As the net neutrality battle heated up, bloggers, loosely organized, found themselves going up against and besting the old established players in the industry. In one particularly memorable episode, MyDD's Matt Stoller went after Mike McCurry, the ultimate Washington insider who was picking up a paycheck as a front man for Hands Off the Internet, a telecom industry front group. Stoller, blogger, eviscerated McCurry, the former White House press secretary, on the Huffington Post and elsewhere online. McCurry skulked away from the issue. Then came the fatted calf that was Ted Stevens' "series of tubes," fodder for a million mocking remarks. As a question of technology, "net neutrality" has never been as black and white as advocates have sold it. But the netroots and allies have done a remarkable job of turning it into a political issue -- and, as we see with Genachowski's announcement this morning, a proxy for progressive communications policy in the age of Obama.

News Briefs

RSS Feed friday >

First POST: Revisions

Tim Wu says we shouldn't be so pessimistic about lobbying; Obama writes a thank you note to reddit; Ted Cruz wants to be the Uber of politics; Llamas!; and much, much more. GO

thursday >

First POST: Impossibles

The FCC vote; a proxy Democratic primary battle in Chicago; Gov Andrew Cuomo begins deleting all state employee emails more than 90 days old; men talking about women in tech; and much, much more. GO

wednesday >

First POST: Off the Books

Chicago's "black site"; The New York Times reports "little guys" like Tumblr and Reddit have won the fight for net neutrality but fails to mention Free Press or Demand Progress; Hillary Clinton fan products on Etsy to inspire campaign slogans?; and much, much more. GO

tuesday >

First POST: Challenges

How Silicon Valley donors are thinking about Hillary Clinton 2016; Yahoo's security chief locks horns with the head of the NSA; Instagram location data catches a Congressman with his hand in the till; and much, much more. GO

monday >

First POST: Bows

CitizenFour wins best doc; Ken Silverstein resigned from First Look Media and took to Facebook to vent; why we need more Congressional staffers; who profits from the net neutrality debate; banning PowerPoint presentations; and much, much more. GO

More